Parliament & Internet

Yesterday I attended the annual Parliament & the Internet conference, which is organised by the All Party Parliamentary Communications Group and Political Intelligence.  It brings together policy makers and those active in the broadband industry in the UK.  It’s always an illuminating event, though it would be encouraging to see a greater level of attendance from BIS, Ofcom and MPs. 

Martha Lane Fox of Race Online seeks to address the fact that 9 million UK adults have never used the Internet and that a high proportion of those who are not online are over 60.  One of the ways in which Internet access could benefit this age group in particular is digital healthcare.  Patients should be able to receive test results and other communications from their doctors and consultants by email.  Why are emails still unheard of in the NHS? Over reliance on faxes, secretaries and the postal system leads to costly inefficiencies.   The advent of high speed broadband means that patients can use video links for remote consultations and to aid diagnosis.  It can enable home-based patients to take their own readings and tests and report the results to the doctor over the Internet.

However, whilst email is possible with a relatively modest speed of connection, two way video links require greater bandwidth.  To avoid the digital exclusion of those that live in the third of the country that is currently unable to get broadband we need to think seriously about how to provide connectivity, preferably high speed connectivity, to those rural areas.  This is where INCA comes in.  The CEO of INCA, Malcolm Corbett, presented a map of Great Britain by constituency, illustrating graphically which constituencies are unlikely to receive broadband from the private sector alone.  INCA advocates that the most effective way to deliver high speed broadband to these under-served communities is in the form of joint public sector/ private sector/ community initiatives, which can also be supported by gap funding to help serve the most hard to reach premises.

This chimes nicely with the Coalition Government’s notion of a Big Society – redistributing power from the central state to local communities who take responsibility for their own outcomes.  Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, gave a speech to the conference in which he advocated bespoke solutions for rural communities and endorsed INCA’s approach.  This Government believes that strategic interventions in rural areas, utilising local knowledge of how and where services should be delivered, is preferable to a top-down approach.

Having undertaken a theoretical exercise to study NGA deployment solutions for the final third, the Government will announce in a few weeks’ time the three pilot areas BDUK has identified for NGA investment.  It is hoped that these will help the Government understand its role in coordinating the specification and the funding for rural networks.

Given that only limited funds are available from the public purse, Ed Vaizey recognises the importance of helping by simply removing barriers to investment.  Whilst it is a step forward that Ofcom have finally decided to force BT to open up its ducts and poles to competitors (after resisting for at least 10 years) investment in superfast broadband will continue to be stifled for as long as the VOA presides over a regime which imposes inequitable business rates on fibre in the last mile.  It is understandable that the Treasury cannot afford to reduce the income it receives from this form of taxation but, since local loop fibre will presumably result in incremental income for the Government, selective exemptions could and should be applied to projects in the final third.

The ITSPA workshop on number porting in an IP world highlighted the fact that the UK’s telecoms network is creaking under the very 20th Century system of routing calls to a ported number via the original range holder’s network.  Not only does the absence of a next generation call routing database lead to inefficient call routing (which benefits no-one but BT, over whose network the calls transit) but it also exacerbates the strain on numbering resources.  Ofcom still allocates numbers in blocks of 10,000 (sometimes 1,000) for each area code, so that communications providers are left hoarding thousands of unused numbers.  As a result, the UK is fast running out of numbers.  A numbering database would solve these problems and bring the UK into the 21st Century and in line with France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Netherlands, and many more.  The Government should be encouraging this.

The new European Framework Directive (amending the Universal Service Directive) seeks to ensure that telephone numbers can be ported within 24 hours of a subscriber contracting with a new service provider.  So keen is the Government to implement EU directives to the minimum extent possible, avoiding any “gold plating”, that it is failing to appreciate that, whilst it may seem on paper that the UK’s migration and porting processes enable consumers to switch service providers relatively quickly, in reality the system is completely broken.  Many consumers who are with non-BT service providers are unable to switch away from those service providers at all or without a great deal of delay.  The Government should remove its blinkers and consider complying with the spirit of European regulations (which are put in place to protect consumers) rather than the letter.

Finally, it would be helpful and somewhat appropriate if mobile/ wifi connectivity could be available in the conference rooms at Portcullis House in time for next year’s conference.

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About Ayres End Consulting
Telecoms consultant specialising in interconnect, regulation & public policy.

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